Legendary 19th Century author
By Adam Jones-Lloyd & Lindsey Ranson
As we celebrate the bicentenary of Charles Dickens birth, it is an apt time to explore his connections with Hertfordshire.
Dickens’ connection with Hertfordshire begins when he was a young reporter with the newspaper the Morning Chronicle. In 1835 he travelled to Hatfield House to report on the fire that had swept through the west wing, an event that destroyed much of the interior and killed Lady Emily Mary Hill, Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury. Dickens two-day stay in Hatfield, or what is today considered Old Hatfield, would influence his second novel Oliver Twist (1838). When Bill Sykes escapes London he travels along the Great North Road, which ran through Old Hatfield. Sykes stops off at the 8 Bells Pub, which remains there to this day.
Dickens’ connection continued when he became friends with the writer and politician, Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Bulwer-Lytton’s ancestral home, Knebworth House, was frequently visited by Dickens: the two authors would discuss and share their work at the house during their time together in Hertfordshire.
In addition, Dickens’ ninth and critically respected novel, Bleak House (1852-1853) has connections with St. Albans. Dickens situates Bleak House within Hertfordshire. In the novel, ‘Bleak House’ is the home of Mr. John Jarndyce, a wealthy man who aims to do-good and carry out charitable acts.
It is believed that Dickens wrote Bleak House whilst staying in a mansion in Broadstairs, Kent. Whilst this has subsequently been renamed ‘Bleak House’, it was Dickens’ visits to Hertfordshire that inspired the text and the house from its title. Research suggests that Dickens visited St Albans during his stays at Knebworth House, and it is therefore speculated that Dickens named the novel after Bleak House in St Albans. If you travel along Catherine Street, at the crossroads of Gombards/Normandy Road and Folly Lane you can find ‘Bleak House’. The house is presently up for sale.
N.B. The writer and journalist William Henry Wills lived in Sherrards Mansion, located off Digswell Hill near Welwyn Garden City. Wills was also a colleague and friend of Dickens. When Dickens was editor of the weekly magazine Household Words, Wills was his sub-editor. Wills continued to work for Dickens with All the Year Round, a successor publication to Household Words.